Fan Q&A: Sumi Shimamoto

by Caitlin Moore,
This panel was conducted at Sakuracon 2015.

PANEL MODERATOR: Let's welcome our guest of honor, Shimamoto Sumi-san. She is an extremely talented and famous voice actress who has been in the industry for a long, long time. One of her most famous roles, her breakout role, was as Clarisse in Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro. She also voiced Nausicaä in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. She was Kyoko Otonashi in Maison Ikkoku. She has had so many roles in so many shows that it is completely impossible for me to list them all for you today. And just one more! She's also the Japanese voice of Princess Leia. So, let's give a warm Sakura Con welcome to Sumi Shimamoto!

Nausicaä is here! Will you stand up? [this is a quote from Nausicaä]

PM: If you have questions, we will answer them. So if you have a question, please raise your hand and say it really loud so I can repeat it back into the mic so everyone can hear it.

Q: You have done voiceover work for some live-action films such as Princess Leia. How is that different your normal work in anime? And can you do any line as Princess Leia?

It's going to be hard to remember a line as Princess Leia, it was quite a while ago. As for the differences between doing the dubbing for the live action show versus doing voice acting work for anime, when you are dubbing over a show that was originally in a different language, just as the people who do the voice acting for anime when it comes over here when it is dubbed into English, they will be listening to Japanese in their headphones, while doing the English voices. So they can use the Japanese as a guide for the intonation and the timing of what they're going to say. In our case, it's the same: we listen to the English voices in our headphones while we're doing the Japanese voices, and it gives us a guide as to the timing of our lines and what that needs to be. The difference between that and animation is when our voices are going to be recorded for anime, there is no soundtrack in our head at all. So we're looking at images, and we're putting our voices into a blank space, pretty much. We don't have any guide to go on. I think probably dubbing over work that has already been recorded in another language is a little bit easier because you have that guide in your headphones you can follow.

I've forgotten Princess Leia's lines, so could you give me one as an example?

Q: “Help me Obi-wan Kenobi, you're my only hope!”

“Obiwan-san, doko kara tasukete kudasai. Watashi no kibou desu!” I think that was really bad. Sorry.

Q: [in Japanese] Congratulations on your 36th year anniversary as a voice actress!

[English] Thank you!

Q: In the beginning, you were voicing roles in animated movies, and animated series, and lately for example, some of the work you've been taking on is for things like smartphone applications. So there've been all sorts of different media you've been involved in lately. Is your approach to all those different media all the same as your approach to animation? Or is there any sort of differences in your approach to those things?

My approach to any work that I'm involved with is going to be the same. I always give it one hundred percent of my ability and I go into it expecting to enjoy it. That approach doesn't vary. But there are some differences accounting for how it's done in different media. For animation, you get the entire cast together in a room and you're recording everyone's voices at the same time. So we're doing our voices together and we're passing around the mic so that we can do our lines. For video games, or smart phones, what happens is that you're recording one by one. So what happens is you're recording in a solitary area.

Another example of recording for different medium which was actually pretty difficult was a challenge to overcome. I was involved in a game that was called Nautilus Fifteen. This is a game that's plot has branches to it, and so when I received the script, it was this fat. [gestures about a foot off the table] And, it takes more than one day to record all that of course, but I asked about it and was told, “These are just your lines”. None of the other characters, just yours. So that took a lot of elbow grease to finish that production. That was interesting.

Q: In what ways has the voice acting culture and industry changed since you got your start?

When I first got started, we would do voice recording in a room where we had turned off the lights. It looked like a movie theater, we had a big screen where we were projecting the reel of the images on the screen and we were recording while that was going on. Nowadays, we're recording off of video files and we're recording off of DVDs and we're looking at something the size of a TV screen rather than a larger screen, so that's different. Also, nowadays the work goes a lot faster. And of course in the generation that came before me, the voice actors and actresses that came before me, there was a time when that was done while the broadcast was live. So they were recording that while the broadcast was being sent out live, and if anyone messed up during that live broadcast, the person who had the very last line in the show, the timing would be off. I think that was incredibly difficult.

After the era of live recordings, technology developed that allowed pre-recorded lines, so that makes things a lot easier for everyone. But if somebody messed up during the recording, we'd have to rewind all the way to the very beginning and start over from the very beginning. That aspect was still extremely difficult. Then, as technology developed again, it became possible for people recording different parts to set the punch so that you could rewind back just a short time rather than start it all back from the very beginning. I think that that… I heard that that improved things a lot and made it much easier. And now, of course, if somebody messes up, you can very easily slightly back it up a few frames or a few seconds and start over from there, and that has made it so much easier than it was when I started.

Q: In the US, when we have voice actors come to conventions, they tell us there's a lot of self-marketing involved in the voice acting industry, like continuing going to auditions and constantly sending tapes of themselves to places that might need work and asking for work. Is that aspect of self-marketing as important in Japan as it is here?

The way it's set up in Japan is a little bit different, it sounds like. It's mostly done through auditions, live auditions for different anime it's difficult to participate in. First of all, you have to be invited to the auditions, to know about you. You wouldn't necessarily know about all the auditions going on, so you have to be told about it first. And secondly, some of the auditions have an extremely large number of attendees. There are auditions that are performed that have several tens of thousands of people auditioning, and out of that, they're only going to find one person that can take on the role out of that many people. So there's just so much more time auditioning. So actually getting a chance to get your foot in and be invited, you have to get picked out of so many people at the audition.

Q: I'm sure she gets invited all the time.

Ah… no… Thank you! There have been lots of roles that I am interested in, but there's been lots of occasions where I did not make the cut of the audition.

Q: Thank you for coming. What is it like to work for Mr. Miyazaki?

Miyazaki-san is someone who carries around his own world inside of his head. He is like a little boy, and so in order to really be on his wavelength, you have to put yourself into the world he is thinking of, the world he is imagining right now. As you're talking with him and working with him, you have to try and imagine what is going on inside his head, and put yourself on that level so you can understand each other properly. If you don't, it is really difficult.

Q: I want to ask you about the role you played in Dear Brother, Oniisama E..., where you played the role of St. Juste. That character is surprisingly dark and has sort of a tragic ending in comparison to the other folks whom that character helps out. Did you do anything more to help prepare for that role?

That character is a lot like Oscar in Rose of Versailles as far as character design. The way that they were drawn is sort of more manly, so I sort of recorded the lines in a more manly way. There are also a lot of rather embarrassing lines that character says, she's a little bit arrogant.

Speaking of manly characters, in that same show, Dear Brother, there's another character who is a little bit like Andre in Rose of Versailles, if you're familiar with Andre as well. That person and St. Juste had a lot of conversations together. Now, behind the scenes, I play Shokupanman, “White Bread Man” in Anpanman, and the voice actress for that person plays Anpanman, the main character. This is a show for little kids, and so they have a lot of dialogue together in that show, and then in Dear Brother we have a lot of conversations together, and it was sort of surreal, because I would start feeling like we were playing Anpanman and Shokupanman instead of our characters. It might actually sound a little bit like Anpanman and Shokupanman.

Q: In Lucky Star, you played Kanata Izumi. It's very much an otaku-centric comedy anime, but your episodes are arguably the most emotional ones in the entire series. How did it feel knowing you were going to be playing Konata's deceased mother, and know that she was not going to be able to see you more?

I did play the role of Izumi Kanata in Lucky Star. One thing that I want to mention is that was a guest role, so I only came into the studio once to do the recording and only appeared once on the show. Now on a regular television show, in that experience, there's going to be an atmosphere of that particular series, a feeling of that particular series, and they have a hold of what that show is about before you go into it. At that time, it was still airing and only the first half of it had aired, so I really quickly watched the first half and got an idea of what the show was about - I hadn't been watching it on TV – and figured out what it was like and decided how my role would be at the beginning of the second half, because we started recording the second half of the series. I decided that I would sort of do it softly and gently, and not play it up like a theatrical ghost, haunting and wailing and things like that. That's how it turned out.

I recorded one song, which was sort of difficult. It's really a sort of a sad song, and it's one that she sings after having died at twenty years of age, so she was quite young when she died, and I had to record that song in a young voice. That was difficult.

I did ask after that if the TV series was picked up for another season, and they made that character a continuing character, please call me and if you do, make that character a ghost.

Q: First of all, thank you very much for coming to Sakura Con. Secondly, have you read the entire original manga of Nausicaä, and if you did, if there's possibility that the entire original manga will be animated, will you want to play the role of Nausicaä again?

Yes, I have read the entire original manga of Nausicaä. When I heard that there was going to be an audition, I really really hoped that I would be invited, and I was really really happy when I was invited to audition. On the audition day, I actually had a cold, so I was a little worried that this would end up with me not getting the part at all because I couldn't perform at my best on that day. I negotiated a little bit to get the schedule for my particular audition changed, and was able somehow, after the schedule changed, to get the role of Nausicaä.

I'm not sure if Miyazaki-san will want to make an animation of Nausicaä or if that will come about to have an anime of the entire original manga, but I definitely would want to reprise my role as Nausicaä if that comes out. However, I do think that's more likely to go to a younger person if that happens.

Q: Do you think you could sing a song from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind?

[begins to sing “Carrying You” from Castle in the Sky] Wait, that's Laputa. [sings “Kaze no Tani no Nausicaä”] And then… [sings “Requiem”] …Okay? The first one that I sang is not a song they had during the movie but is actually an image song, and so that wasn't heard in the movie when it aired in Japan.

Q: I'm sure you enjoyed playing all these characters, but which role do you consider the most challenging?

There have been a lot of challenging roles. One in particular that came to mind the day before yesterday, I was involved in a show called “Ice Smile”, or in Japanese Koori no Bisho, and I could not remember the name of the character that I played at a panel. I was asked to use my very lowest voice when recording the voices of that character. That was somewhat difficult. When you're recording in a louder voice, your voice naturally goes higher as well, [demonstrates] so it was quite difficult to avoid it getting higher when it got louder.

Q: If you had to play another role in Maison Ikkoku, what would it be?

If I was asked to do a role again for Maison Ikkoku, I think I would still play Kyoko again.

Q: Can you share anything with us about current projects you're working on or any future projects you have planned for?

One of my current projects is called Neko no Dayan about a cat name Dayan, and there are various voices I do. The first voice was from when Dayan was a kitten, and had a very kittenish voice. [high-pitched meow] And then when she's an adult, her voice changes like [lower pitched meow]. She sounds maybe a little bit like Shokupanman.

I also think that it's a little sad that Anpanman is not very well known in the US. Probably not very many people have had the chance to see it. It's one of the shows that is incredibly well-known, sort of a generational touchstone in Japan. It has been airing for 27 years continuously and every little kid in Japan knows about Anpanman, and of course anyone who was a little when it started knows about it. It's famous for being one where a grandparent or a mom or dad can let the kid watch the show and be assured that they will not see anything they'd disagree with. It's very safe to have your kid watch it. In Japan, if you ask, “What is an anime that everyone knows about?”it would have to be Anpanman and Sazae-san are extremely well known.

Q: I really, really love your work on Gintama as Mitsuba-dono. Do you have any interesting or funny stories about working with the cast?

There weren't any particular hiccups with that particular production or anything. It went pretty smoothly. One thing that surprised me was that character, Mitsuba, really, really loves spicy foods and is always dumping a lot of spice and hot sauce onto her food. I'm quite sad that that character died. If they had lived I would have had a lot more opportunities. Mitsuba's character must become a ghost, thus letting me come back.

Q: Do you ever improvise while voice acting?

Yes, we do improvise. Everything that's written in the script, we record as written, but there are all kinds of voices and sounds and reaction voices that you can do, and those are always all ad-libbed. Of course, when fighting, you have to do all the fighting voices and that's very important. Would you like to try doing this? Swing a sword.

Q: [weakly] Zap.



Would anyone here like to try doing a really loud booming laugh?

Audience member: MWAHAHAHAHAHAHA

[English] Very good! All of you can ad-lib.

Q: You worked with some people at an early point in their careers who are now very well-known, such as Hayao Miyazaki and Rumiko Takahashi, who wrote Maison Ikkoku and writes other manga. Do you have any thoughts about seeing their rise in fame?

If I am to look at my own experiences, my own record, when I look back on the very first things that I worked on, they're so unskilled and so rough that they're extremely embarrassing. One of my very first roles 35 years ago was the role of Clarisse in Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro. When I go back and look at that role, I can hardly bear to listen to it, it's so rough and so unpolished. Other voice actors and actresses probably feel the same about the very first works that they were involved in and the first roles that they took on. I bet they all feel really embarrassed when they look back those beginning roles.

In Japan, there are a lot of people who want to become voice actors and actresses. It's an extremely appealing job, so a lot of people aim for it. It's also a job where you can continue accepting work; there's not a particular age where you have to stop accepting work or you have to start accepting work. But, those two particular things add up together to mean that there are a lot of people competing and not very many roles. So it becomes difficult for people to stay in the industry for very long. If you stay in the industry long, you are a survivor, and you're one of a very small number of survivors that have really stuck with it. The turnaround is so fast that if somebody drops out, one of the really young people will jump in and take that place.

One of my reflections on Hayao Miyazaki… that person has never subscribed to the idea that you have to look at what people want and model themselves and their own work on what they think will appeal to others. He's always done exactly what he wanted to do. In that aspect, he is completely the same as he was when I worked with him at the beginning of this period and has never changed that.

Q: What is your favorite anime, and are you watching anything in recent seasons?

I always watch Sazae-san. Also Neko no Dayan. What anime do you like?

Q: Scrapped Princess.

You like princesses? There's so many at this convention center.

Q: If you hadn't gotten into voice acting as a career, was there anything else that you wanted to do when you were young that you might have gotten into instead?

I originally got into voice acting because I wanted to be an actress, and over time, the roles that were voice only that I was called to do increased more and more and eventually I was voice acting full time. So, I think if I hadn't gone into the voice acting industry, I would have stayed as an actress and hung in there with it more as a regular actress instead. However, I think I'm glad to have become a voice actress because regular actresses are really affected by how they look. The difference between that and voice acting is that as a voice actress you can take characters that are of any age and voice those characters regardless of your actual age. You could be voicing a grandmother or grandfather – grandfather? – or be voicing a little kid. That's quite common, that you can take roles that are outside of your regular age. I think that's really awesome, that's really great, and I wouldn't trade that. How about if I give you an example, starting from someone who's really young? [progresses through ages seamlessly from infant gurgling all the way to an old woman] It's really fun.

Q: What did she say?

It was nothing important.

There are so many characters that I had trouble saying goodbye to it was difficult to finish them all. There are many characters that stay behind with you, even after you finish voicing that role. Maison Ikkoku is one of those examples. I wish that that story had lasted longer and had more and more and more plot, and Cagliostro is another one. The role of Clarisse ended just with that movie, Castle of Cagliostro, so there's a little bit that we miss about her character in the manga that was never animated. If it was animated, there would be a lot of questions people would have. When will she meet Lupin again? How will that turn out? How will her character turn out? I always wondered that. There's so many that it's hard to say goodbye to. Whenever I work on a role, I always wonder what comes after that. What happens after the part that I voiced? That's something I wish I could always find out.

Q: This is less question, more comment. I hope there's not going to be a problem with that. In the animation industry, it's the animators’ job to bring movement to the characters and the environments that they're creating, but it's the seiyuus’ job to actually to actually give the characters life and heart. From the bottom of my heart, and I hope for everyone in this room, I would very much like to thank you for having brought such beautiful emotion and heart to the characters that you have played over the years.

That's always my aim when I voice a character. I want to add soul to the voices I become.

Q: You have succeeded.

[English] Thank you! Thank you so much!

Q: You have voiced a lot of characters. We'd like to know, first of all, which is the one that is most like you, which is the one that is least like your personality, which is the one that you wish you could be like, and which is one you are glad you are not.

As far as the characters that are most like me in the sense that it is easy to do that voice, I have to say in Detective Boy Conan, the voice of Conan's mother. That one was really, really easy, that one was the easiest for me to voice. As far as characters that are least like me, that's more difficult to play, there are lots of different characters who are really not anything like me at all, but I don't find them very difficult to play because I sort of box them off from my own personality a little bit in the sense that there's no character that I would be really discouraged from playing or find really difficult to play. In that sense, I can have fun doing them all.

Q: Recently, a lot of new voice actresses and actors were heard a lot on the 90s and early 2000s haven't seen to be getting as many roles, and so there have been more beginning actors and actresses that have been taking a lot of roles. Have you noticed this? Do you have any particular feelings about this change?

I mentioned this earlier, but there are a lot of voice acting roles but there are also so, so many people who want to become voice actors and actresses, that I think there's definitely no way we can stand in the way of the next generation. The next generation is always going to be taking on new roles. I remember when I was a member of the next generation and I was the number one female voice actress.

I was happy to be invited to SakuraCon seven years ago, so this is my second time attending. Last time, seven years ago, in comparison SakuraCon has gotten so much bigger and there are so many more people attending. It's really taken on more of a festival nature and taken over parts of Seattle as well. I was surprised by this when I came. I would love to come to SakuraCon again and I look forward to seeing you all again in the future. Please support and cheer on the Japanese animation industry and watch and enjoy lots of animation. Thank you all very much for coming.

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